Bulaga injury exposes weakness at right tackle

Pete Dougherty
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SEATTLE – The Seattle Seahawks absolutely hammered the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. No getting around that.

Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) was injured during Thursday night's game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Still, it's generally a bad idea to draw too many conclusions from one game in a 16-game season, especially the opener. Two months from now this game could seem like eons ago. So there will be no writing off the Packers here after their 36-16 loss at CenturyLink Field.

Except, there was one development that has to concern the Packers and their 2014 prospects: Bryan Bulaga's left knee injury.

The Packers' right tackle injured his knee – the same knee on which he had reconstructive surgery about 13 months ago – early in the second quarter. The Seahawks abused his replacement, Derek Sherrod. His inability to hold the right edge against the Seahawks' pass rush was a big reason this game got away from the Packers in the second half and has to be a major concern as the Packers move on from this debacle.

Coach Mike McCarthy didn't offer many details about Bulaga's injury other than that it's a sprain and that the team's medical staff doesn't think it's serious. That's a relatively promising sign, though it's never wise to take NFL coaches at their word when they talk about the severity of injuries, especially after games.

So maybe Bulaga's injury is relatively minor and he's back in the lineup this week or at least fairly soon. No major damage done.

But if it's more serious than the Packers suggest or know, Bulaga could be lost for an extended time, and the Packers would have a big problem. Bulaga was able to walk to the locker room after the injury, but that doesn't necessarily say anthing. When he suffered a torn ACL last year on Family Night, he kept playing.

Either way, his injury reveals how vulnerable the Packers might be at that position -- and behind left tackle David Bakhtiari as well -- because of versatile backup Don Barclay's season-ending torn ACL in training camp.

Sherrod's struggles against the Seahawks were not unforeseen. He opened the preseason with a promising performance at Tennessee, but that turned out to be misleading. It was played in a downpour, and the slick footing favored the pass blockers over the pass rushers. His play wasn't nearly as good the final three preseason games.

The Packers were hoping that after Sherrod reconfigured his body for the better while missing 2012 and most of 2013 because of a broken lower leg that he'd emerge as at minimum a good backup swing tackle. That's looking unlikely based on the final three preseason games and the way the Seahawks exploited Bulaga's absence Thursday night.

On one of the biggest plays of the game, coach Mike McCarthy decided to go for a fourth-and-5 from the Seahawks' 41. The Packers trailed trailed 20-10, but the game still was plenty competitive. But on the fourth down, Sherrod whiffed on defensive end Cliff Avril, who sacked Aaron Rodgers before the quarterback had a chance to do anything. That ended the drive.

"I thought Cliff's sack was the one that kind of put us in control of this game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after the game.

On the Packers' next possession, first-and-10 from their 10, defensive end Michael Bennett blew around Sherrod, sacked Rodgers and forced a fumble that turned into a safety. Everything went downhill for the Packers from there.

McCarthy helped Sherrod some after that. He kept tight end Andrew Quarless in on Sherrod's side on some pass plays, and had running back James Starks helping him with chip blocks and double teams on others. But later, on a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter that could have cut the Seahawks' lead to 11 points, defensive end O'Brien Schofield basically bulled Sherrod into Rodgers and forced a quick throw for an incompletion.

Just to be clear, Sherrod isn't the only reason the Packers lost this game. Seattle's the defending Super Bowl champ and CenturyLink Field right now is the hardest place to play in the league because of the Seahawks' talented defense and incredible crowd noise. There's plenty of reason to think they would have lost anyway.

But Sherrod's performance reveals a very real weakness at backup right tackle. Though Barclay has some limitations, his history at that position shows he isn't the liability Sherrod was on this night.

If Bulaga's injury turns out to be serious, or the Packers lose him down the road, their options aren't particularly appealing. They could stick with Sherrod and hope he improves with more practice and game play. They'd also probably have to scheme to help Sherrod more, though that limits the offense overall. Or they could move right guard T.J. Lang to tackle, and replace him at guard with Lane Taylor. But that weakens two positions rather than one.

So yeah, Thursday's loss marked a horrible start for the Packers. It's hard not to come away thinking the Seahawks are a much superior team because of their ability to wear teams out with the punishing running of Marshawn Lynch and their swarming defense. Especially when they're at home.

Still, in and of itself, it's only one game and won't necessarily mean much of anything come December. Things can change over the course of the long NFL season, and early games especially don't count for much other than a win or loss in the standings.

But Bulaga's injury revealed that the Packers over the long haul of a 16-game season the Packers could have a lot more to worry about on their offensive line than with their second-half butt kicking.

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